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Abstract Ecologies – A Conversation with Amber Christensen

“There Should be Gardens” is the title of the 14th edition of InterAccess’s Emerging Artists Exhibition. Drawing on her research in feminist/queer curatorial and media arts practices, the exhibition is curated by Toronto’s Amber Christensen and showcases five Canadian early career artists whose practices address “the interconnectedness of technologies, ecologies, botanies, gender and the cosmos.” In aggregate the show’s selected works invoke elemental qualities, amplify and abstract natural materialities, and offer different modes of seeing and engaging the world. With the exhibition winding down this week, CAN engaged Christensen in a Q&A to delve into its framing and provocative works.

Anna Eyler – Fugue in 3 Steps
↑ Anna Eyler, Fugue in 3 Steps
In the curatorial essay for the show you describe the selected body of work as “an ecology” and identify its capacity for blending “the digital with natural worlds.” And of course the vibrancy of a garden is a different milieu—one teeming with life—than the sterility typically associated with the white cube and most gallery settings. Can you unpack the exhibition’s general thematics?

I think the white cube is imbued with a particular history, but that also opens up possibilities for re-imagining. With that in mind I attempted to re-create the InterAccess gallery as a sensorial garden in which various kinds of beings, both human and nonhuman (the physicality of the gallery visitor, digital and material technologies used by the artists as well as the concepts that the artists are working with) could come into contact with one another, and which they interact, pass each other by or just co-exist. The ideas that have shaped my approach are influenced/inspired by concepts that I’ve borrowed (and possibly misinterpreted) from scholars working in what is called feminist new materialisms—that acknowledge the materiality and affectivity of the body and other beings and things—that the matter of all beings and things are not separate and do act upon one another, but are these interactions still happen within a socio, cultural political context.

So as per the essay, Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” looms large as an influence. What other scholars impacted your thinking?

My entry way into feminist new materialisms came via my interest in affect studies. Thinking and working on this exhibition I specifically revisited some of Sarah Ahmed’s writings on queer touch. As well, concepts of queer ecologies played heavily in the shaping of this exhibition and I highly recommended the book Queer Ecologies. Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. Previous to the exhibition, but was still definitely an influence is the writing of Karan Barad who is a theoretical physicist and feminist scholar.

Beyond the theoretically inspired ecological investigations, the show foregrounds queer, feminist, transgender, genderqueer practices or methods of engaging technology. How do these approaches relate to or speak to ‘the natural world’?

I was interested in seeing what work was being made by artists who either identified or felt they worked within a feminist or queer feminist framework and I left this very open and loose as I don’t think there is one definable queer feminist/feminist practice or methodology. The artists in the exhibition engage in a variety of nuanced ways with the ‘natural world’ and I think that they are working from and unspoken but shared notion that ‘natural’ is not not inherently heteronormative, nor is it static—but always in flux.

InterAccess – There Should Be Gardens
↑ Left: Alize Zorlutuna, becoming oblique of the world | Right: Adrienne Crossman, Plant Series 1
A key focus within “There Should Be Gardens” is materiality. Could you provide a brief reading of each of the five works, in terms of how they interrogate or consider specific environmental materialities?

Anna Eyler’s mixed media sculpture Fugue in 3 Steps creates an assemblage with a hot pink resin cast replica of a piece of driftwood, water and fire that is the enmeshment of the organic, inorganic, elemental, technological; Alana Bartol’s Forms of Awareness based on performances in which Bartol inhabits a ghillie suit reimagined as the Ghillie, a female identified plant, technology and human organism that via a series of un-camouflaging reveals the paradoxical ways people interact with their environments; Adrienne Crossman’s Plant Series 1 is a hypnotic slow moving glitch study of plants that tangles together the cellular and the digital—breaking apart and reconfiguring both the digital code and the plants; Kara Stone’s experimental videogame Cyclothymia draws connections between the affective being of human emotion, bodies and feelings with the cosmological, challenging notions of human constructed temporalities; Alize Zorlutuna’s becoming oblique of the world includes sound, the tactility of physical sand and a slightly uncanny video that follows finger as caresses terraced landscape, creating an intimate space for the gallery goer to feel, touch and through these experiences consider ideas of queer ecologies.

Beyond their unique materialities the Bartol, Crossman, and Zorlutuna pieces are all super-textural and visceral. All three artists foreground plant life (or at least plant-ness) to distinct ends. Can you talk about this centrality of this motif within the show in a little more detail?

Yes, I wanted to create a very sensorial and haptic experience of a technological-plant-earth environment. The element of connection or attempts at bridging a distance that is almost unbridgeable between the human and the non-human is an underlying thematic. I feel like the three artists you refer to are in some way other intentionally or unintentionally are exploring the sort impossibility of the project of truly being able to attain a fully actualized interrelationship between the two elements. But it’s not to say that they are pessimistic about this impossibility, but rather invigorated by the attempt to close the gap.

Kara Stone – Cyclothymia
↑ Kara Stone, Cyclothymia
With its abstracted solar system, Stone’s videogame Cyclothymia may be the outlier in “There Should Be Gardens.” The game’s oblique narrative is quite esoteric and it operates at a macro—cosmological—scale that is orders of magnitude beyond the other works. Where exactly do you see this piece fitting into the body of work and what might engaging it bring to how we approach the other pieces?

I think that Kara’s piece is less obviously tactile in that it’s drawing on elements that are to some extent more intangible to the everyday human experience. But, I think the affinity lies in the desire to connect with the very material existence of the non-human world, it’s not plants, but instead are the stars and the moon—both of which are matter that are also imbued with affect and energy of their own—just as the plants, sand and other earthly elements that the other artists are engaging with.

Also, all of the works are to some extent considering non-human temporalities—like Adrienne’s that brings together the frenetic temporality of the digital with plants that very much have their sense of time that is different than digital time. Kara takes the format of the video game, and forces the player to slow down, the speed of the game is performing and representing a slower temporality, the solar system’s sense of lived time is much different than constructed human time and I think Kara is trying to bring those two temporalities together and show that they don’t have to be discontinuous as the are.

With the show winding down, what is on tap next for you?

I just finished my MA in media studies at York and now I’m back at school at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information studies pursuing a post-masters information studies diploma. I’m also co-curating program of recent Toronto film and video works that’s coming up at the end of the month with Pleasure Dome a Toronto based film and video curatorial collective that I’m involved with.

InterAccess | Amber Christensen
“There Should Be Gardens” is open through Sep 26 | photos: Yuula Benivolski

There Should Be Gardens–Gallery View